The Missouri River roars and humbles

A Wendy's restaurant in Percival, Iowa is closed and surrounded by a wall of dirt to fend off what experts predict will be a dramatic rise in floodwaters from the Missouri River. Photo: Barney McCoy

One thing I like about the Midwest is that powerful weather still rules at times. Conversely, one of the things I fear about living here is that weather still rules at times.  All humans can do is bear witness, take adequate precautions and hope for the best.

I have seen rainbows explode across the Nebraska sky as noisy thunderstorms fade in the distance leaving tornado damage to lives and property. I’ve watched the spring prairie explode in carpets of wild flowers that stretch to the Kansas horizon after flooding rains washed away crops and roads.

Thursday, the Missouri River reached its highest level at Omaha since the completion of six upstream dams.Thursday morning, the river hit 30.51 feet. The previous post-dam record had been 30.26 feet on July 10, 1993. Photo: The Recreational Cyclist

The latter is playing out this week across parts of the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas. The Missouri River, propelled by heavy spring rains and melting snow from the mountains of Montana and Wyoming, has washed over  its banks in many areas, swallowing crops and roads, homes and businesses.

The worst, we are told, is yet to come along thousands of square miles and scores of communities that lie along this vast American flood plain.

Soil is piled high outside the Blue Moon Bar in downtown Hamburg, Iowa, in preparation for flooding which could strike in the next week to 10 days. Photo: Barney McCoy

I stopped in Hamburg, Iowa yesterday to see firsthand the non-stop preparations being made for the rising Missouri River, which flows five miles west of the southwest Iowa city.

Outside the Blue Moon Cafe and Bar, I found 79-year-old Clarence Hendrickson operating a tractor and pushing tons of freshly dumped dirt into a 13-foot-tall protective levee around the business.  Up and down Hamburg’s Main Street, downtown shops were surrounded by sandbags prepped and ready to be deployed against flood waters should they seep into the downtown district.

Clarence Hendrickson uses his tractor to push dirt into walls to protect the Blue Moon bar Wednesday in downtown Hamburg. Photo: Barney McCoy

“The waiting is the worst part,” said Hendrickson. “Not knowing when and if the river will flood here and for how long.”

Hamburg Fire Chief Dan Sturn told me the city could begin filling with flood waters in the next week to 10 days depending on a long list of variables: how quickly the river rises, if levees hold or give way, if weather in the upper Missouri river basin is hot or cold, wet or dry.

Sandbags line Main Street businesses in Hamburg, Iowa where flood waters from the Missouri River threaten to strike the city within the next week to 10 days. Photo: Barney McCoy

According to the Associated Press “The rising Missouri River is set to reach peak flows within days and won’t return to normal until September as the Army Corps of Engineers manages a series of swollen reservoirs in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota and faces the prospect of huge snowpack melting in the Rockies.”

In other words- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has no choice but to release  more water from Missouri River dams filled to capacity.

Today, Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, South Dakota, was spinning off more than 140,000 cubic feet of water a second (cfs) into the Missouri River.  To put this in layman’s terms; one cubic foot of water equals about 7.5 gallons, thus  more than a million gallons of water a second are shooting off the Gavins Point Dam spillway into the Missouri River.

The river’s flow will be increased to 145,000 cfs Friday, and then 150,000 cfs Tuesday according to Jody Farhat, chief of the Corps’ Missouri River Basin Water Management Division in Omaha.

Farhat said releases will peak at 150,000 cfs and stay at that level until at least August. In Hamburg, residents are keeping a wary eye on a levee along the river that partially collapsed Tuesday before hasty repairs were made.

Many of the town’s 1,100 residents have already been ordered to evacuate. With the river expected to rise several more feet in the coming weeks, Chief Sturn and others are warning remaining town residents that up to 10 feet of water could cover Hamburg in the next week or so and could remain for weeks, or months.  If that happens, a long stretch of neighboring Interstate-29 highway will also be closed by the flooding.

Several businesses along Highway 2 in western Iowa have already closed in expectation of flooding from the Missouri River. Photo: Barney McCoy

Ten miles northwest of Hamburg, eastbound Highway 2 from the  Missouri River bridge to the interstate is already down to one lane in many places. The Wendy’s restaurant and America’s Best Value Inn and Suites are closed and surrounded by newly erected 15-foot tall piles of dirt covered in plastic and sandbags. The neighboring Sapp Brother’s truck stop is still open but will close when the flood waters begin creeping in. The truck stop’s store stock was already being cleared from the shelves when I stopped by yesterday.

Just west of Hamburg, Iowa, Army Corps of Engineer contractors have been working 24 hours a day this week to add another five feet of dirt to shore up a mile long section of levee against threatening Missouri River flooding. Photo: Barney McCoy

Today, the Army Corps of Engineers was feverishly working to pile another five feet of soil to shore up a mile long section of a smaller levee located a quarter mile west of Hamburg. It may be the town’s last resort if the Missouri River rises as experts expect it could.

West of Hamburg, in  five miles of farmland that stretch toward the Missouri River, it’s already a ghost town. Farms have been evacuated, anything not nailed down- harvest equipment, cars, trucks, furniture, clothing, live stock, pets and people- have been hauled away or evacuated.

An eerie silence fills the void, punctuated by blowing wind, chattering red-winged blackbirds and the occasional state or county vehicle patrolling the area, watching the rising river, flooding roads and curious strangers.

As I stood gazing over the fast-moving Missouri River today I reminded myself that nature is still a mighty force to be reckoned with in the Midwest. This river, despite the mighty dams and levees built to contain it, still has a powerful mind of its own.

The Missouri River is at once majestic and, in the face of what may be the worst floods in a century or more, a humbling show of nature.

About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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38 Responses to The Missouri River roars and humbles

  1. Pingback: The Missouri River roars and humbles | WPBlogger

  2. I had no idea the situation was this dire — let’s hope Mother Nature is feeling more peaceful than wrathful…

    Best of luck…


  3. A humbling show of nature indeed! As a South Dakota girl, we have been watching as Pierre (state capital) residents pack up and leave for higher ground. It really is uncertain. Thank you for posting, along with your photos.

  4. It’s been one scary spring. Thanks for the post and the pictures.

  5. diaryoftruth says:

    Thanks for the beautiful photos that illustrate the powerful path that Earth carves out with her rivers, and which humbles us with her glorious phases.

  6. Eva McCane says:

    i’m from iowa and have many friends struggling with the flooding on the west side of the state…and now a bit in central iowa with the recent weather. i know people have evacuated their homes, and many businesses are in jeapordy. they’re all in my thoughts.

  7. The rest of us need to stand in awe. That is the power of nature.

  8. Janet says:

    Arguments pro and con about climate change aside, I would not live in arivers flood plain or in an area frequented by hurricanes and/ oe tornadoes. But that’s just me . . .

  9. ournote2self says:

    It really is scary how floods, tornadoes and earthquakes have destroyed so much land in just a few short months. I’ll be praying for all those who have been affect by this.

  10. Harold says:

    Strange weather these days! Thanks and congrats on being FP!

  11. gaycarboys says:

    Stunning pics.That Wendy’s!! My gosh they must be shivering their timbers!

  12. sleepydogs says:

    Thanks for the reporting and pictures! This is better than a lot of local news I’m seeing on the subject here in Nebr.!

  13. cclody says:

    Wow….hard to read. Thanks for your research. My prayers go out to the anxious.

  14. deanhansen says:

    Best of luck. I’m glad to see that people are preparing. I hope that the efforts are enough.

  15. tjfox says:

    Parts of the area where I live that were flooded back in ’93 are expected to flood again. It is humbling indeed when talk back then was that the flood was a once in a 100 year occurrence, yet here it is happening again less than 20 years later.

  16. aliceflynn says:

    I live at the headwaters of the Missouri in Montana. In the Gallatin Valley, the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers come together to create the Missouri. We are still getting unusually heavy rains here, with local flooding of creeks and rivers, and the deep snow pack in the mountains has not even melted yet. Look out downstream. I’m sorry to say there will be more high water coming your way.

  17. It will be interesting how and if the low-lying area communities recover. Many I’ve spoken to vow not to return. There is also a bubble of animosity against the Corps of Engineers. The feel is that decisions to release water much earlier should have taken place.

    We cannot be the victor over the full power of nature. Sure, we win many of the little battles but the river eventually triumphs. Though this may permanently change the social geography of the Missouri Basin from Sioux City to the Iowa/Missouri border may we learn renewed humanity and what it truly means to be an American.

  18. rico says:

    I’m glad they make enough preparing. Thanks to inform this and I hope everything is going ok.

  19. abhishek says:

    the climatic changes can be so fickle.Very nice pics indeed specially the first one.

  20. Angelique says:

    The photos, your words and the fact that I too have seen rivers show amazing power and strength makes me realize how truly great your blog is. Thank you for sharing!

  21. SomerEmpress says:

    Thanks for posting. I’m in the Midwest, and have access to the instantaneous reporting and bad weather events, but this post shapes the story differently, and more passionately. Thanks for humanizing the story by giving life to the faces behind the storms and the fears, such as Clarence Hendrickson, the 79-year old tractor trailer driver, who work effortlessly and arduously to make life a bit easier in the midst of a storm.

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  22. mkeeffer says:

    Here in Cali, we have little idea how you Midwesterners are able you manage in such situations – you’re all truly heroic. Hang in there! Great post….thanks.

  23. says:

    I am praying to God that you all will be ok. I had no idea that the river was flooding like this. Thanks for the blog.

  24. ezinearticlescomjmmarketing1 says:

    I didn’t understand the severity of the situation. Thanks so much for your post. I look forward to reading more of your posts/writings. I have also been reading about the Solar Blasts and disruptions on the sun which is giving us this massive heatwave. Let’s hope that the upcoming December 2012 planetary alignment will send nothing but positive energy our way and that the earth calms her atmospheric disturbance. Thanks again for this post.

  25. It’s so easy for us humans to get into a mindset where we assume we are ‘it’ and nature is separate and subjugated. I love wild weather, you’re right, it is humbling. A reminder that we are all one and that life is full of peaks and troughs despite our best attempts to keep it stable. Congrats on Freshly Pressed. x

  26. Thank you for your nicely comprehensive description of the complex, often love-hate relationship Midwesterners have with mother nature. Having grown up 30 miles from the shores of the mighty Missouri river, I was accustomed to visiting river cities, area hubs of commerce and some of the most populated areas, to shop and find entertainment and culture. This year, however, is exceptional. People are literally being instructed to evacuate their homes, and not just for the minutes associated with a tornado scare, but for weeks or months at a time. I cannot imagine having to do such a thing.

    I now live in Chicago, but I travel for work to the Missouri river valley area for a few days a month to work. My primary route between work sites involves driving north and south on Interstate 29, the highway now facing a slow choke-hold of river water. One evening last week I drove to an entrance ramp to get onto Interstate 29 southbound. However, getting on the highway was impossible because the entrance ramp intersection was under about 4 feet of water. This type of reality, I am told, is just the beginning for the Summer of 2011. I wish all my fellow Midwesterners well, and hope everyone gets through this challenge safely. My thoughts and best wishes are with you at this trying time.

  27. Muzzy Daud says:

    I had not known about the situation, this is very bad. Thanks for this post.

    By the way, I have a new post up about deserving more credit, I would love any thoughts and comments to give me something to work on.



  28. Pingback: Missouri River – Flood of Biblical Proportions 6/11/11 |

  29. Joanna says:

    Wow that’s really interesting.

  30. enamatthew says:

    This is a thing I need to do more research into, appreciation for the posting.

  31. Enjoyed the informative article… I’m in Wisconsin for a wedding. The train I was going to take back to my home in Missoula, MT was cancelled because of the flooding. I guess I’m paying for the great ski season I enjoyed this winter. Something like 1-2% of rivers in the US still follow a natural flow regime, so maybe I should also be looking to put some blame on the way this country manipulates the environment to such a degree as to obliterate the land’s natural capacity to absorb or adapt to variations within systems. Thanks for the thought provoking post, looking forward to exploring your site more.

    • barneymccoy says:

      Thanks for your comments. You raise an interesting question: If the Missouri River were allowed to run free, what impact would it have on downsteam communities in such a wet year as this? Hope you make it home safely from the wedding. Cheers!

  32. Thank you for sharing content to read.

  33. essay says:

    That was an excellently written essay, thank you so much.

  34. Zach says:

    Great post.

    Stay strong, and positive.

  35. The river’s flow will be increased to 145,000 cfs Friday, and then 150,000 cfs Tuesday according to Jody Farhat, chief of the Corps’ Missouri River Basin Water Management Division in OmahIts been a long time to excel while reading the same calibre of articles and find quite impressive.

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